Israel and South Korea are not superpowers, but they are in a particular class of influential, technologically advanced countries with strong militaries.
Relations between the two “middle powers” have been getting stronger, but the relationship has not always been so rosy. Much like Israel’s ties with India, they were once more vulnerable to the whims of the Arab world.
“If you compare, the trade between Israel and South Korea has reached about $2 billion,” says Alon Levkowitz, who specializes in East Asian security and the Korean peninsula at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “But with the rest of the Middle Eastern Arab states, it’s about $1 trillion. South Korean companies have huge projects in the Middle East.”
South Korea opened its first embassy in Israel in 1962. However, the Arab boycott limited activity between the two countries, eventually leading to Israel slashing its embassy from Seoul when the Foreign Ministry was forced to make budget cuts. The countries exchanged ambassadors again in 1992, and since then things have been on the up.
However, last week, South Korean President Park Geun-hye toured the Persian Gulf, visiting places like Qatar and Dubai. Arutz Sheva asked if this was worrying from an Israeli perspective.
“The Arab boycott still exists in the psyche of South Koreans. They have so much invested in the Middle East that they fear a backlash” for being too close to Israel. Yet that notion is not as strong as it used to be, let alone the Arab boycott of the Jewish State. It has not prevented the sudden opening of research centers in Israel by Seoul.
That fear is mostly actualized in South Korea’s hesitation to finalize a free-trade agreement (FTA) with Israel before its Arab neighbors, an issue Dr. Levkowitz mentioned in a 2014 article for the Middle East Institute.
In 2013, South Korea’s ambassador to Israel, Kim Il-soo, participated in the Korea-Israel Creative Economy Forum. Earlier that year, Samsung (a Korean company) opened a research center in Ramat Gan. The Korea Israel Research and Development Foundation also serves to link start-ups in both countries, making the potential for join projects between the two tech-strong states incredibly large.
Despite the fear that Middle Eastern states might retaliate against South Korean business interests were Seoul to be closer to Jerusalem, South Koreans actually have a sort of ‘philo-Semitic’ admiration for Jews and Israel.
When asked why in last year’s Anti-Defamation League (ADL) survey of global anti-Semitism that 53% of South Koreans espoused stereotypes about Jews (much higher than the 20% in China or 23% in Japan), Dr. Levkowitz disputed the way the ADL framed the results.
“I wouldn’t say it’s anti-Semitic, rather probably an overestimation of Jews or Israel. Look at the figures. The country in Asia sending the most tourists to Israel is South Korea, and many of those are Christians. Evangelists who have certain theological views of Jews are not considered anti-Semitic.”
“Israel itself is seen positively in South Korea. Israeli diplomats talk of Seoul as a wonderful place to serve because they don’t deal with anti-Semitism on a daily basis.”
“If anything, they overestimate Israeli power and its achievements in culture and technology.” Laughing while trying to find a way to put it, Levkowitz joked it was a “positive anti-Semitism.”
“If you told a South Korean that Jews won 20% of the Nobel Peace Prizes, they would admire it.”
South Korea: Business as Usual, not Weapons
One of the stops on the South Korean president’s tour of the Persian Gulf was Saudi Arabia, where last week Seoul and Riyadh came to an agreement that would see South Korea help build Saudi Arabia’s first nuclear reactor. The timing has not been seen as all that coincidental by some who compare this with the timing of the Iran nuclear negotiations and also an Egyptian agreement made last week that will give Russia the tender to build Cairo’s first reactor.
Asked if South Korea made any considerations Saudi Arabia would be looking to compete with Iran’s military program, Dr. Levkowitz said that South Korea is solely focused on business.
“They’re trying to export their civilian nuclear energy industry. South Korea also signed a deal with Abu Dhabisome years ago. They are trying to compete with Japan, the US, France and Russia building civilian nuclear infrastructure.”
“The focus is on business, not politics.”
The same considerations come up when Dr. Levkowitz is asked if South Korea worries about public perception of these nuclear deals considering the worry South Korea has over the way North Korea has wielded its own program to stock up on nuclear weapons.